Face the Truth, You Crazy Bastard

One of the things I've enjoyed most about working on Bukowsical is how honest it is about Bukowski, about creative people in general, and about creation. Sure, Bukowsical is more funhouse mirror than actual biography, more hipster prank than literary exegesis, but even though it plays fast and loose with reality sometimes, it still gets at the truth about Bukowski, his life, his work, and the explosive intersection of those three. And in the process, Bukowsical also gets at the truth about us.

As the show reminds us more than once, we can be Bukowsical too. Perhaps more often than we'd like to admit.

In my experience, there are essentially two kinds of stories -- love stories and Hero Myths stories. I can't think of a single show we've produced in twenty-two years that isn't one or the other. It seems fairly obvious why this is -- the two fundamental human drives are survival and connection. Hero Myths are about survival, including psychological and emotional survival, and love stories are about connection, love, sex, and all that jazz. As I've written here in the past, we're in the middle of a new Golden Age of Musical Theatre, with more new shows than ever before built on the Hero Myth rather than on love stories. I think that's partly because many musicals are now more individual, personal expressions than they once were (think Rent, A New Brain, American Idiot, Once), and also because the times have changed.

Human connection is not nearly the struggle today that it was when the majority of our country was rural, before television, before the internet, so it's not as primary a topic in our storytelling. Parallel to that, as our culture matures and grows more sophisticated, we have more free time, more time for reflection, more time to explore inward. When Rodgers & Hammerstein started writing together, most young people's life paths were set for them by family and society; today, that's rarely the case. Today, it's a very different world and most of us must find our own road.

Just like Bukowski did.

While Bukowski's life was way more horrific than most of our lives, and while Bukowsical takes that already extreme life and exaggerates it further for comic effect, still we can all see ourselves in Buk's Hero journey. We've all felt like outsiders in one situation or another. We've all felt rejected. We've all felt unloved. We've all felt lost. We've all known success and failure. And most of us have drowned our sorrows in alcohol at least once or twice. Despite Buk's more antisocial character traits, he is in many ways very Zen-like. He just stays on his road and keeps stumbling forward, pretty much just accepting whatever comes his way.

And his life story, even in the cartoon world of Bukowsical, has lessons for us. No matter how many obstacles and tragedies assault him, Bukowski never gives up on his writing. He knows what his path is, he stays on it no matter what, and he refuses to allow anyone to steer him off of it. That's certainly a lesson more of us could learn. I guess I identify with Bukowski because I did the same thing with my musical theatre -- since back before I can even remember, all I wanted to do in life was make musicals, and I never wavered from that path for a second. And though I always wish it was easier to pay my bills, I've always known what Bukowski always knew -- as the great Joseph Campbell put it, you must follow your bliss.

I found a wonderful article a while back about the personalities and habits of creative people. As I read it, I realized it described Bukowski perfectly, it described me perfectly, and it described most of the people I work with too. One quote is something I've learned to accept and embrace over time:
"Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they're also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm... This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always 'on.' In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work." -- quoted from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's article, "The Creative Personality" in Psychology Today, 1996

Reading this article reminded me again how lucky I am to work and play with the people I work and play with. I just read a very cool book called The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, and it makes the point that everyone is creative. The very act of speaking is creation, assembling words into sentences to express thoughts. People create all the time. People like Bukowski create great art (what the book calls "extraordinary creativity"), but we all create. Which is why Bukowski's story really does connect to almost everyone.

We are all Bukowsical.

Maybe the artistic lesson of Bukowsical for me is that when I find something that speaks to me, it's probably going to speak to our audiences too. I may not understand right away what it is about a show that's so important or compelling, but I'll figure it out over time. Hero Myth stories are important because every Hero Myth is a human life in miniature, and the point of art (as Sondheim likes to say) is to make order out of the chaos of our lives. A piece of art selects from life the details that reveal the essence of the human experience and arranges them to tell a story that reveals important truths.

As I watch this amazing, fearless cast bring Bukowsical to life every night, I keep thinking of one of my favorite lyrics, from "Pity the Child" in Chess -- "Pity the child, but not forever, not if he stays that way." In other words, we all have baggage, we all have obstacles, and the point of life is to keep moving on. That's something we all need to be reminded of, and Charles Bukowski is an incredibly vivid example of that.

The response to this show, from both critics and audiences, has been so much more positive than I expected, including several rave reviews, and I think it's for the reasons I've laid out here. In its own weird, aggressive way, Bukowsical is every bit as universal as Fiddler on the Roof.

Still, as several of our reviews felt compelled to point it, it's not a show for everyone. I can tell that some people enjoy the show, but have a hard time with the language and some of the content, while other people go on and on about how much they absolutely love it. It may be partly about their expectations -- we warned people about the adult language and content, but I know some of them came in having no idea what they were getting into. I think they probably had the hardest time with the show. And my bet is that the people who loved the show most are the people who don't distinguish between "good" words and "bad" words.

Every year when we program our next season, we know that we can pick one show that probably won't sell all that well -- or more to the point, we know we should pick one show like that. I have a theory that the only theatre companies that survive long-term are those who provide programming that no one else does -- New Jewish Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare, Act Inc.,The Muny, and of course, New Line. The whole reason New Line exists is to offer an ongoing experience in the musical theatre that you can't get anywhere else. We produce so many shows that no one else in our area would ever dare put on stage -- The Ballad of Little Mikey, Love Kills, The Wild Party, Johnny Appleweed, She's Hideous, bare, The Nervous Set, and of course, Bukowsical. And our willingness to do that is starting to change the conversation not just locally but nationally, as other companies around the country see that our kind of programming is viable -- a company doing work like this can stay afloat for twenty-two years.

I hate using the word edgy because it's become so diluted, but sometimes we do shows that are literally at the edge of what audiences can handle. Occasionally we even cross that line ever so slightly (Love Kills and The Wild Party come to mind). I knew that this was one of those shows that was right up to the edge -- it was going to be too much for some in our audiences. I don't think a company like New Line should do that kind of show all the time, but I think we have to do them once in a while. Those shows make us uncomfortable because they take us into the dark corners where we don't like to look. But sometimes it's important that we look anyway.

People need what we do. They need storytelling. They need art. Yes, including art as vulgar and rambunctious as Bukowsical. It's been a joy and a privilege working on this show and getting to know the one and only Charles Bukowski. What a wild, hilarious ride! We close this weekend -- if you haven't seen the show yet, come join us this weekend. We promise you a hell of an adventure and at least a dozen belly laughs.

Long Live the Musical!